William was born in England, the third son of the Emmanuel Howe, 2nd Viscount Howe and Mary Sophia. His mother was the daughter of Baroness Kielmansegge and had been a mistress of King George I. This connection with the crown may have improved the careers of all three sons (they looked something like George I), but all were also very capable officers. William's eldest brother was General George Howe, who was killed at Ticonderoga in 1758. The next brother was Admiral Richard Howe who joined him in America during the revolution.
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2 The American Revolution
3 After the revolution
He entered the army when he was seventeen by buying a Cornet's commission in the Duke of Cumberland's Dragoons in 1746.
By the next year he was fighting as a Lieutenant in Flanders as a part of the War of the Austrian Succession.
After this war he joined the 20th Foot where he became a friend of James Wolfe.
During the Seven Years War Howe's service first brought him to Amerca. His service in this conflict did much to raise his reputation. William commanded a regiment at the siege of Louisbourg and led a successful amphibious landing. This action under fire earned the attacker's a flanking position and earned Howe his commander's praise.
Howe commanded the light infantry under Major General James Wolfe at the Battle of Quebec, Canada on September 13, 1759. He led a fighting ascent to gain position on the Plains of Abraham, clearing the way for Wolfe's army to assemble before that battle. His actions here earned him the rank of Brigadier General. He earned further fame in the capture of Montreal under Jeffrey Amherst before returning to England. Howe also served in the capture of Belle Isle, off the French coast, in 1761. He was adjutant-general of the force that captured Havana in 1762.
In 1761 Howe was elected a Member of Parliament for Nottingham.
This was not unusual, as the election of 1761 sent over 60 army officers to the commons
He was generally sympathetic to the colonies, but he was quiet and reserved in his support.
He did oppose the Coercive Acts, and in 1774 assured his constituents that he would resist active duty against the Americans.
But when the time came and King George called in 1775 he sailed for America.
The American Revolution
Major General Howe arrived at Boston on May 15 at the head of the 4,000 additional troops sent to General Thomas Gage.
Gage's orders were to clear the American Army and break their Siege of Boston.
Howe's plan was to take Cambridge, but the American's fortified the high ground above the town.
Howe planned to crush the American's position by massive assault.
He was thus in command at the Battle of Bunker Hill on July 17, 1775.
He personally led the left wing of the attack.
His leadership on the field was outstanding, and they did succeed in gaining their objective, but the cost was appalling.
General Clinton called it a "A dear bought victory, another such would have ruined us."
While Howe wasn't injured in the battle, it had a pronounced affect on his spirit.
The daring, aggressive commander who had served with Wolfe became the cautious, reluctant General who was slow to seek direct confrontation.
His concept that those in open rebellion were a small minority of Americans who would fold with a display of force was shattered.
Howe's report to Lord Germain called for 19,000 additional troops and included the prophecy that "...with a less force....this war may be spun out until England will be heartily sick of it."
The battle for New York
On October 10, 1775, he replaced Lieutenant General Thomas Gage as Commander-in-Chief of the British Army in America when Gage returned to England.
He became Sir William when he was knighted in 1775.
In April of 1776 the appointment was made permanent, although forces in Canada were placed under Guy Carleton.
He successfully defeated General George Washington in the Battle of Long Island in the summer of 1776. In September 1776 he ordered the execution of Nathan Hale for espionage.
Howe failed to support the Saratoga Campaign in 1777.
Instead he launched the campaign to capture Philadelphia.
He succeeded, just as he had in New York, but again failed to crush Washington.
After the revolution
He resigned in 1778, and on May 20 Henry Clinton took over as commander.
Howe returned to England.
When his brother, Richard, died in 1799 he inherited the Irish title and became the 5th Viscount Howe.
In 1814 he was a privy councilor and governor of Plymouth, England where he died.